University of Aberdeen tackles ‘UK’s most dangerous industry’

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen have teamed up with industry partners, KURA Human Factors to develop a training course designed specifically for farmers.

The course has been tailored specifically for agriculture and is the first to emphasise the importance of non-technical skills (NTS) for farmers using techniques borrowed from the aviation industry.

Non-technical skills refer to a subset of ‘human factor’ skills such as task management and situation awareness and have been examined extensively in other high-risk industries including aviation, offshore drilling and healthcare. However, the NTSAg research team at the University of Aberdeen are the only group studying these skills in farming, and this will be the first farmer specific NTS training course developed anywhere.

Farming is the most dangerous industry in the UK with 14,000 non-fatal injuries and 39 deaths in the UK during 2018 and 2019. This translates to a fatality rate 18 times higher than the general industry average. Causes of death remain broadly the same over the past five years with being struck by a moving vehicle, injured by an animal and falls from height being the most frequent killers. Such a consistently high fatality rate has prompted farming organisations and safety professionals to look for a new approach to improve farm safety and ultimately reduce fatalities.

Dr Amy Irwin and the NTSAg team have studied the accident rate in farming for more than six years and have applied their knowledge of NTS in other industries to identify which would be the key skills for farmers. The team have applied this research by developing a training course with training organisation KURA Human Factors.

Dr Amy Irwin explains: “Non-technical skills fall into two categories – cognitive thinking skills such as decision-making and situation awareness, and social interaction skills such as teamwork and communication. Our research over the years has found that these skills, in conjunction with technical know-how, are key to ensuring safe and effective performance at work.”

Originally identified as crucial for safety in aviation where NTS training is mandatory, training in these skills has been successfully applied across a range of high-risk industries with the aim of reducing work-place injuries and fatalities.  Bringing this knowledge to farming, the team have produced a range of practical tools designed to develop and enhance these skills within agriculture like the tractor situation awareness checklist, and farmer resource management guide, both distributed to thousands of farmers in the UK.

Dr Irwin adds: “Many industries emphasise the importance of NTS, and some, including aviation make it mandatory, however development of these skills has not been addressed in agriculture until now. The current collaboration builds on our strong foundation of research and practical tools to produce an entirely original farmer training programme that mirrors the techniques used to train NTS in aviation and construction.

“We hope that by providing a new, novel, training course in these skills we can turn our research findings into improved safety for farmers.”

Niven Phoenix from KURA added: “An evidence based non-technical skills course for agricultural workers is long overdue. The advent of technology in farming has been astounding with systems and hardware that has advanced out of sync with the training required to manage the increased risk presented.

“We have already seen parallels with our work in the construction industry. It is beset by similar problems that are now being addressed with effective understanding of Human Fallibility and how we can build systems, processes but more importantly behaviours that protect livelihood, life and limb.

“This is an excellent course that will produce safety dividends for farmers worldwide and it has been a privilege to work with the University combining their rigorous research with our practical aviation application of training. As someone who lost a father to an aviation accident I know that cultures and behaviours are intrinsic to safety. I feel we have ignited a spark that will continue to grow, acting as a catalyst for change and bringing those same aviation safety behaviours into our agriculture industry. One thing is for certain we cannot continue in the same vein in agriculture with statistics that make it a safety lottery when people leave the security of their homes.”

The collaboration was funded through the University of Aberdeen Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation funding program. The funds awarded covered the costs of an internship for PhD student Ilinca-Ruxandra Tone to design farming specific materials for the training course, plus support from PhD student Nejc Sedlar to run discussion groups with farmers as part of the design process for a new training and assessment tool FLINTS (Farmer List of Non-Technical Skills) that can be used in conjunction with the KURA training program to measure skill development.

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